Suburban underground

Sep 152008
Authors: Erik Myers

Beyond the east fringe of town, on the corner of Timberline and Vine, stands an unlikely slice of Fort Collins counterculture. The School House, as its word-of-mouth patrons called it, once packed the energy of a professional music hall inside its brick and mortar walls, minus all the rules.

For the past eight months, this makeshift-CBGB was a refuge for Fort Collins youth. It was the ideal party locale for some: right outside of city limits — and thus, the eye of authority — with enough room to fit at least 200, maybe more. To others, it housed an avant-garde community that couldn’t be found anywhere else in town, a boondocks hangout for the scene crowd.

To most, however, it was a special kind of music venue where almost any band could freely perform for a crowd without the auspices of contracts and shady dealers. Speakers and instruments, albeit low quality, were available. A bare minimum of rules and requirements existed to keep things running. This was the product of energetic twentysomethings fulfilling a vision without compromise in the name of music.

But the show is now over. The residents have moved out, leaving behind the tune of a once rich underground of music savants.

A Nation of Nobodies

The School House’s birth in early January wasn’t exactly revolutionary; those running house venues remark that the past five years have seen a nationwide subculture take rise out of sleepy suburbs and inner cities.

It wasn’t even the first of its kind in Fort Collins. That honor belongs to the Alley House, the much smaller in-town apartment of senior English major Matt Azreal Martin, who began showcasing local talents from his living room two years ago.

“We are a super bar culture out here,” Martin said. “Growing up in Fort Collins, it kind of sucked not having any underage venues to go to, unless you were hardcore Christian, and I f*****g hated Christian rock.”

Having a reputation as Colorado’s most liberal town, it would come as a surprise to most that the house venues of Boulder underwent a crackdown last year. Tyler Broeren, a senior philosophy major at the CU-Boulder, was among them.

His establishment, the Phallus Palace, ran from December 2006 to July 2007 before bowing to the threat of large-scale noise violation fines, courtesy of Boulder police.

“It’s kind of hard to control where you’d want it to go,” Broeren said, mentioning that Phallus Palace shows often attracted bawdy crowds. “But there’s some places that don’t get attention, and they’ll keep it that way.”

Well-known in Denver is Rhinoceropolis, which packs oft-eccentric acts into a warehouse setting. But looking to the towns beyond the big cities, underground scenes are becoming increasingly prominent. Fort Collins saw its’ own underground in peak condition earlier this year with the inclusion of the School House.

School Days

Those running the show at the School House describe themselves as a tight knit circle of travelers who connected during the years they spent in Fort Collins.

Two among them — CSU graduate Patrick Messall and senior philosophy major Garrett Carr — found inspiration in Austin, Texas.

Three days of train-hopping took them into town, where they stumbled across a vegan hot dog eating contest and music festival. Messall and Carr took time to talk with the organizers.

“We’d go from coffee shop to coffee shop, and we’d talk about these things,” Messall said. “Garrett was really passionate about doing something; not just living in Fort Collins anymore, but actually making Fort Collins a little bit cooler.”

Upon return, Carr and Messall introduced the idea of a commune to the circle, somewhere to practice art and showcase music.

Surfing Internet rentals on a daily basis, the pack eventually stumbled across an ad for Plummer School, a two-story box of a building built in 1906 under the direction of the Larimer County School District. More than five decades of county kids would begin their educations at Plummer until the school district reorganized in 1960 and the building was abandoned, undergoing more than a few owners in the following decades.

“We found it like ten minutes after the owner posted it on Craigslist,” Stelth Ulvang, School House resident, said. “It really was just a perfect lucky find . it’s outside of city limits, so there’s not a three-unrelated rule out there, no noise ordinance.”

René Liebow had been involved with the School House since the beginning, but took up permanent residence a few months after things had already taken off. He recalls art shows and food-making parties in the early days, along with educational events and political debates. Before taking to the streets of Denver for the Democratic National Convention, protest organizers with Food Not Bombs crashed at the house for a few nights, discussing plans and issues.

“Nobody heard about any of these things, which is where it kept all of its underground charm,” Ulvang said. “It was always people we knew. We weren’t opening up the space to outsiders as much as just trying to set things up with friends.”

As time went on, and the School House saw the number of visitors swell, it’s presence as a place for music took precedence. To get a show going though, connections were everything.

“At first, it was bands we knew and then bands they knew,” Messall said. “Just through that alone you can get to every band in Fort Collins, not that we had every band in Fort Collins.”

Shows were taking place on a weekly basis during the School House’s heyday. Carr was primarily responsible for arranging acts, Messall said, most of which were younger bands, some of which performed for their first time.

Local musician Jon Alonzo first attended to watch punk collective 10-4 Eleanor play one of the first School House shows. He’d go on to perform there with three different bands: Winderous Igloos, Paean and The Rifleman.

“I wouldn’t say it was a better quality (venue), but the School House definitely had one of the most consistent lineups,” Alonzo said.

Occasionally, however, more prominent acts dropped in.

Ask any regular what the best School House performance was, and they’ll talk about the night of June 2; an eight-hour collaboration headlined by Ian Cooke, Laura Goldhamer and the New Denver Orchestra.

“That depicted what I loved most about the music in the house,” Liebow said. “That was the prime example. Everyone there was there for music.”

Reality Bites

At the School House, rare were the drunken fights, thieves and drugged out weirdos, save for the one “guy who was out of his mind on something,” Liebow said. Regardless, it didn’t take much for the police to stroll by with flashlights in hand and questions in mind.

“They’ll just walk in if the door’s open,” Ulvang said. “I’ll walk right up, won’t start letting them walk around. We have so many rights, and they’ll just overlook them if they try to.”

He adds: “We never got ticketed.”

Martin, whose Alley House was nestled in a residential bushel off Laurel, had his own approach.

“Keep your neighbors happy,” he said. “As long as your neighbors aren’t bothered, you’re okay to run it. But as soon as they have the slightest sting, they’re gonna be the ones who call the cops.”

The high-activity reality of house venue residency was a love-hate relationship for Liebow; at times, exhausting, but ultimately an experience that changed him and left behind a lifetime’s worth of memories, far too many to fit in this article.

As he puts it: “It’s the house that’ll ruin every other place I’ll ever live.”

Having operated for eight months, the curtains have dropped at the School House, as the landlord has requested that the house become more of a family-friendly residence, too big of a commitment for his residents to keep. Martin has closed up shop as well, moving to Loveland to take care of his 83-year-old grandfather.

These simultaneous conclusions have left a sizable absence in Fort Collins’ youth culture, but its forerunners say the era isn’t over.

“It’s not drying up, it’s lying dormant,” Martin said. “People really freak out for it, they love it. Someone else is going to take the reigns, we just don’t know who.”

Staff writer Erik Myers can be reached at

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